Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard

Harvard Kennedy School of Government | Harvard University

AI for Cities or Cities for AI: Who Should Decide?

Bill de Blasio

Former Mayor of New York City (2014-2021)

March 28, 2023, 5:00pm-7:00pm
Science Center, Lecture Hall A, 1 Oxford Street


There is no historical precedent for a technology with as profound ramifications as artificial intelligence being developed with so few checks and balances. In an age typified by information overload and polarized politics, the relative absence of a public discourse around AI is striking. We have a profound democracy deficit in this area, with little progress in developing oversight mechanisms, transparency and regulation. The complexity of the technology and of the issues it raises should not defeat our ability to determine schemas for ensuring it meets our needs, and not the other way around. Equally, the public good needs to be asserted in a realm dominated by private sector actors with little accountability. Nowhere is this more true than in our cities which are about to be inundated with a host of AI-related challenges, from the safety concerns regarding self-driving vehicles to the massive loss of employment likely from AI-enabled automation. As has been true all over the globe on huge challenges like inequality, racism and climate,  cities will have to be the problem-solvers and the innovators. We need a democratic methodology for addressing AI and we need it immediately. If we don’t answer the question “Who decides?,” then matters will surely be decided about us, without us.


Mike Firestone

City of Boston Chief of Policy and Strategic Planning

Sharad Goel

Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Antoine Picon

G. Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Ya-Wen Lei

Associate Professor of Sociology, Harvard University

Moderated by

Sheila Jasanoff

Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Harvard Kennedy School

About the speaker

Bill De Blasio is an American political leader who served as the 109th mayor of New York City from 2014 to 2021. A member of the Democratic Party, he held the office of New York City Public Advocate from 2010 to 2013. De Blasio started his career as an elected official on the New York City Council, representing the 39th district in Brooklyn from 2002 to 2009. As mayor, de Blasio led NYC through the Covid-19 pandemic, turning what was once a global epicenter into the safest city in the country. In 2014, de Blasio created a groundbreaking initiative which ensured that early childhood education became a universal right in the five boroughs. The universal Pre-K and 3-K programs in NYC have become a national model. De Blasio graduated from New York University with a B.A. in Metropolitan Studies and from Columbia University with an M.A. in International Affairs. The poster image was created by the Midjourney AI based on a prompt ("Manhattan if it was designed by algorithms") inspired by suggestions generated by the ChatGPT AI after it was given the title of this talk.